Coping with Uncertainty

Q: [All Ages] I’m super stressed out with everything that’s going on right now. How do I overcome this anxiety?

A: To say these are unprecedented times is an understatement. Our parents did not talk to us about that time in their lives when the entire world was brought to its knees by a tiny RNA strand. Although we may have heard from grandparents and history books about the 1918 flu pandemic, the notion of a similar occurrence overwhelming modern technology was remote for most of us. But nature has shown us once again that its power overcomes human desires, ambitions and aspirations. And, as nature overcomes our collective ego, there has never been a better time to become mindful about the way we think, feel and behave.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems like no matter how diligently we stay up to date with the news, we still can’t control the fact that each day ushers in a new reality. This collective test on endurance was neither on the calendar, nor in the user’s manual on how to be an adult. But together, we can find ways to move forward and craft good, valuable lessons to pass on to future generations.

While we must be diligent about flattening the peak of our local pandemic, we must remember that there will be a life after COVID-19. Enduring this pandemic may feel like a marathon. So let’s explore a few ways to best pace ourselves during this race.

  • Understanding Anxiety: In mental health, we look at behavior in a biopsychosocial continuum. We are biologically primed to act a certain way in the face of danger. But our innate psychological characteristics and the social events of our upbringing determine our own unique appraisal of danger. In the face of a threat, our body activates a cascade of communications between glands to produce the kind of hormones that could help us get into action and escape. But, these glands will not distinguish between a saber-toothed tiger and a bill from the IRS. It is up to our mind to appraise the depth of the threat and to respond accordingly.
  • Fear vs. Science: While there is a tiny space between denial and panic, both represent a maladaptive appraisal of danger. When anxiety is excessive, we overestimate danger and underestimate our capacity to cope. When it’s too little, we put ourselves and others at risk by denying the existence of the threat because it’s simply too difficult to handle. Within this space, there is productive anxiety. The kind that helps us evaluate the threat as close as possible to the facts and activate problem-solving skills to protect ourselves. Because of this, it is important to remember that the way we feel may not be truly representative of the facts. It is important to stay informed by choosing only reputable sources and to make an active effort to balance both the bad news and the good news every day.
  • Controlling What We Can: It is important to remember that the COVID-19 pandemic has mobilized experts around the world who are tirelessly finding ways to bring our lives back. We can control how much we adhere to their crucial public health recommendations to shorten the duration of the pandemic. We can control our health by staying active, eating healthy and following mental health recommendations. We can control the spread of misinformation by only sharing from legitimate sources.
  • Keeping Routines: Structure is vital. While our job to stay home right now may seem trivial, we must remember that we function in a structured world and that, unless we plan on relocating to an Everest, routines are going to be waiting for us when this is over. Change out of your PJs every day. Draft a calendar for the whole family and place it where everyone can see it. Factor in productive times, as well as leisure and physical activities.
  • Finding the Silver Lining: Focus some time each day on gratitude and spotting the potential changes and opportunities ahead. Make a fun exercise at home where everyone comes up with a positive outcome from this global crisis.
  • Live, Love, Laugh: Humor and altruism are by far my favorite defense mechanisms. Finding humor in everyday life does not invalidate our feelings toward this global tragedy. Giving yourself permission to smile guarantees that your mind gets a break in the midst of this overwhelming amount of new information. As for altruism, a selfless act of kindness has a tremendous healing power, whether it’s dropping off groceries for your elderly neighbor or making your valuable skills accessible in an online platform.
  • Make Time For You: Add relaxation techniques, meditation and physical activity to your daily routine. Within a reasonable screen time constraint, leverage technology to get the family moving.
  • Ask For Help: If you think emotions of fear, sadness and anger are getting in the way with your ability to focus, problem-solve and parent, please seek help. Remember, you must put your oxygen mask on first before placing it on someone else.

Dr. Patricia De Marco Centeno is a consultation-liaison psychiatrist and director of the Maternal Mental Health Program at Hoag.

To view the original Parenting OC article, please click here.